Chronic conditions tend to ebb and flow in severity — some days, weeks, and months go really well, and during others, it’s difficult to work, socialize, and function.
An invisible illness is an umbrella term for any medical condition that isn’t easily visible to others. This includes chronic physical conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, fibromyalgia, and others — but also mental illnesses.
If someone you care about has a chronic or invisible illness, there is a right way and a wrong way to help them. They need you more than ever, but in ways, you probably didn’t expect.
1. Accept your powerlessness.
Watching a loved one in pain is one of the hardest things in the world. It can be especially challenging after an extended period of time of trying to make them feel better, but realizing your efforts were futile.
There are many ways to support your loved one, but the first step is to accept that you are powerless to make them better. It’s not your responsibility to take away their pain. You need to acknowledge this, and truly accept it, before you will ever be able to make a difference for them.
Your love and understanding is the only medicine they need right now.
2. Learn about their illness.
The first and most important step towards understanding is taking the time to learn about their illness. At the very least, learn the basics. What are the symptoms? What are the treatment options? It can be helpful to read the experiences of others too. Websites like Reddit or TalkSpace can be good for these types of discussions.
Having an intellectual understanding goes a long way towards providing effective care. You will never be able to fully understand the pain, without experiencing it firsthand. However, reading about the pain and understanding the symptoms allows you to become more empathetic.
Talk to your loved one about the pain and their overall mood. Ask them questions to better understand their illness rather than guessing. It may be hard for them to articulate the answers, but be patient. This is the best way to show love and support, as it will be authentic in their eyes.
3. Be beside them or give them space, whenever they need it.
Living with a chronic illness can be awfully lonely. It’s easy to feel disconnected from the world when friends and family members cannot understand your pain. Especially when your life feels so severely limited.
During these tough times, your loved one can use your companionship. Not giving advice or trying to solve their pains, but just being beside them. Never underestimate the power of spending quality time with someone you care about while they are in pain.
Sometimes, just knowing we are not alone can carry us through the worst moments of our lives.
But the reverse is also true. There will be times of excruciating pain, when the best thing you can do is give your loved one some space. Remember, getting enough sleep and rest is a fundamental part of managing chronic pain. Sometimes your loved one needs you, but other times they need to be alone.
No one wants to stay home in bed on weekends (although sometimes this can be a great way to unwind). But when you have a chronic illness, you’re forced to make hard choices. By giving them space, and not taking it personally, you are supporting them more than you can possibly know.
4. Validate their pain.
Ultimately, the thing that most people with a chronic illness so desperately seek is to be heard, to be understood, to be accepted, but above all else, to be validated.
When your loved one is in pain, most people won’t believe them or even care to try to understand. But you can be the one who understands and believes that their pain is real. You can’t make them feel better, but you can make them feel heard.
This may be the most powerful way to show your love and support. Very often, when chronic pain patients feel neglected by the world, a compassionate validation can give them strength to persevere. Having a loved one say “I hear you and I believe in you” can be life-changing for them.
5. Remain calm, even if they are frustrated.
The worst part of a chronic illness is usually not the pain itself, but the seemingly never-ending battle that makes it so hard. They get sick, recover, then get sick again, in an endless cycle.
At times, it will get frustrating, but it’s so important to remain calm. When your loved one is in pain and frustrated, they sometimes lose control of their own emotions and even body. They may become needy, distant, angry or sad.
Your interactions may not be as rational as you would expect under normal circumstances. And it’s easy to lose your cool when your good intentions are met with a reaction you didn’t expect. But remember, chronic pain can bring out our worst qualities.
Imagine an alarm clock that goes off in your bedroom at random times throughout the day—unannounced and irritatingly loud. Maybe you can handle it for 1 week, despite getting only 3-4 hours of sleep some nights. But after 4-6 months, or even a year, you might feel like you’ve lost control on your own life. This is how a chronic pain patient feels sometimes.
But if you can stay calm amidst all the frustration, the tension will always pass. You will be supporting them in a way that will make their pain easier to endure. It can be difficult to support your loved one in this way, but it’s worth the effort.
When someone you care about becomes chronically ill, it can force a wedge between your relationship. It can even push away the person you are trying to support. But you can bridge the gap if you approach it with the right mindset. In fact, it can even strengthen your relationship as you grow together as a team and as individuals.
If you can practice these five principles, you can become a beacon of hope. You will support your loved one in ways they never thought possible, shining light into the darkness of their day. And one day, when you are in need, they will be there in a heartbeat the same way you were there for them.
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